Monday, June 29, 2009

By Night in Chile - Bolano

For those who believe in the Day of Judgment, the day of death is for making atonements. Even those who have different beliefs seem to feel a compulsion to explain their lives on the deathbed. I remember vaguely (or maybe it is only a romantic imagination) the last few words from the only two people I have seen close to death (not on their last days). Their words were incoherent, their eyes constantly focused on a distant point, which I like to believe were moments running from their lives. There were some regrets there, and a couple of confessions. None of them dramatic, but only to find freedom from some unnecessary weights carried for years.
Contrary to those words, the last words of Bolano’s priest (Urrutia) are very coherent. They are said for a purpose. Like others, he begins to speak to make atonements for his mistakes, but the atonements quickly relegate to justifications. Urrutia is a member of Chilean intelligentsia who has turned a blind eye to the happenings within his state, and given it’s tacit approval to the atrocities of General Pinochet. Through the memoirs of this spineless, opportunist priest, Bolano sketches the complicity and unconcern of this intelligentsia, which stands and holds literary parties above a torture chamber for prisoners, gives personal lessons to Pinochet and his team of barbarians, and remains sullenly silent against the crimes of the government.
In the priest’s feverish deathbed expressions, there often appears his nemesis: ‘the wizened youth’. The Wizened youth is either Urrutia’s moral self, challenging him to rise beyond his selfish interests or it is Bolano himself, criticizing the old literati who sit on their posteriors, while the country goes through turmoil. It is to this youth that Urrutia offers his peace speech – alternating between guilty confessions and defensive arguments for his complicity. In real life, Bolano admitted to being less than impressed with the Chilean or Latin American literature, which he perhaps perceived to be escaping into magic realism while ignoring the realities. This book is believed to be his stark criticism of the literary world, particularly singling out Pablo Neruda.
By making Urrutia a member not just of the literati, but also of Opus Dei, Bolano also indirectly blames the church for lending a strong support to an authoritarian government. The Church support itself is not surprising, considering the history of Opus Dei with Franco’s barbarian regime in Spain. Yet, to draw priests so shamelessly hand in glove with a killer, is a strong statement. In one part of the book, Urrutia travels to different European churches, and runs a long commentary about churches decaying with pigeon droppings and falconry. Such is the concern of the church, and of a literary critic.
It is an excellent work. One completely different from The Savage Detectives, the only other Bolano I have read. Each book stands on completely different pillars, and is still linked to the other with a wonderfully strong narration and interest in real lives. I do not completely subscribe to Bolano’s criticism – literature does serve a purpose, but that purpose is not always to hold the mirror to reality. Sometimes an escape offers a respite to the reader, draws him away into a world where life can exist. Literature expands beneath and beyond the obvious, and a failure to comment on the obvious is not necessarily literature’s failure. On a more practical note, literati too have to fear for their lives. But then, we cannot negate that tragedies don't often become horrific and draw an exclaim until written about. For this, some members of the writing circles need to offer discerning voices, publish rebellious material (even though clandestine), spend sometime in prison and lead some protests. Only then they seem worthy of the adoration shown them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Wait seems to be the theme of the moment. I am waiting for the monsoons, which seem unmoved by the scorching days. I am waiting for things to progress at work, beyond which let me not say more. I am also waiting for getting out of the city to greener pastures (though I did come back from a hectic weekend - but that was 'hectic', so not quite what I am looking for).